Once upon time Britons were also wholehearted Europeans! Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur

img_1078Simon Armitage follows up his exquisite translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with this translation of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur. Again, as Heaney also did so brilliantly with Beowulf, he manages to render into contemporary language the poem while remaining true to the original’s spirit and content. The almost monotonous relentlessness of the violence in this poem however makes it a somewhat less satifying work that those other two, but it is still an entertaining excursion to the Dark Ages.

The story begins with envoys of the Roman Emperor showing up in Arthur’s court demanding tribute. Arthur responds by declaring war on Rome and setting off on a campaign to assert his own rights in Europe. Behind him, in Britain, he leaves his nephew Mordred as regent… a bad mistake.

Much blood and internal organs are graphically shed as Arthur fights his way across Europe, with Gawain, the greatest of his champions, in the thick of the fighting. Armitage notes in the book’s introduction, that this is an older, more seasoned Gawain than the one we encountered in the Green Knight, but he remains, in his chivilrous concerns, recognisably the same character even in the midst of some very sanguinary battles.

One other thing that struck me about this poem: in it Britain is very much a nation at the heart of Europe, a Celtic kingdom that extends from southern Scotland to central France. Arthur is explicitly represented amongst the Nine Worthies as pre-figuring the unmistakeably pan-European Charlemange and Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade. Hence he is more entitled to the throne of the Roman empire than the man who has demanded tribute of him. It is Ireland and the Scottish Highlands that are the place apart, the uncivilised Atlantic fringes beyond the European mainstream. How times change.

Overall this is a fine, compelling piece of work by one of the most interesting and entertaining of English poets, one who is also currently working at the top of his game

Important insights marred by irritating writing style: Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

The Bottom Billion is well worth reading for presenting some very powerful insights into the causes of conflict and poverty from some imaginative economic analysis. However Prof Collier does rather overegg his argument with the tiresome use of straw men: assigning to his imagined opponents views which almost no one holds. For example how many leftist political scientists would regard the Lord’s Resistance Army as anything other than a manifestation of murderous craziness? Prof Collier suggests at one point that there is some latent sympathy for them in vast swathes of academia.

He also asserts support for his analysis from some dubious historical examples: for example he argues that UNITA’s welcome demise in Angola arose from the imposition of effective measures against blood diamonds, which reduced UNITA’s natural resource wealth.

I worked in Angola when some of these measures were put in place and certainly was a vocal supporter of such sanctions as a means of reducing UNITA’s capacity to kill. But I think most people who know a little of the Angolan conflict would feel that the provision of American intelligence to the Angolan Armed Forces had more of an impact on the destruction of UNITA’s armed insurrection, leading ultimately to the killing of their psychotic leader Jonas Savimbi.

So overall a book worth reading for the important insights drawn from fine research, but requiring of something of a strong stomach to get over Prof Collier’s irritating tendency in this book to suggest that he is the only wise thinker on conflict in the world.

Renko returns to the mean streets of Moscow: Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations

Komsomolskaya (Three Stations) Square

Komsomolskaya (Three Stations) Square

In the years since Investigator Arkady Renko’s first appearance in Gorky Park his fortunes have waxed and waned with the politics of Russia. This has brought him threat of execution, exile on a factory ship as a political undesirable, and rehabilitation in Yeltsin’s Russia.

In Three Stations Renko is once more out of favour with the powers that be. In spite of this he begins to ask awkward questions relating to the dead body of a young woman found with no obvious injuries. Elsewhere Renko’s young friend Zhenya takes it upon himself to try to help a young girl who’s baby has been stolen, also in Three Stations. Their investigations bring them into contact with the excesses of Russia’s contemporary oligarchs and the desperation of the abandoned children who live at the margins of Moscow society.

Renko must rate as one of the nicest detectives in modern crime fiction: the tragedies of his life, his deeply regretted, but very useful, capacity for violence and the mundane horrors of his work never undermines his inate decency, wry humour, and unfailing politeness. In many ways he’s like Inspector Morse but without the grumpiness in a bloodier Russian milieu.

While there is little of the shock of the new that came with Gorky Park’s exploration of Soviet bureaucracy this book is still a cracking thriller, and a return to form of a great series that has lagged somewhat of late. As always Renko is like the most dependable of old friends, a compelling guide and knight errant in the midst of a brutal labyrinth.

Imagining Gettysburg: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara


The Killer Angels is a fine account of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War. Shelby Foote’s magisterial history of that war credits the Union victory at Gettysburg principally to Generals Reynolds and Hancock. However, with the exception of the Confederate General Robert Lee, who is a major protagonist in this novel, for the most part The Killer Angels focuses upon key second and third rank leaders, in particular Longsteet amongst the Confederates and Buford and Chamberlain in the Union army: Buford fought decisively on his own initiative on the first day of the battle to deny the Conferates the high ground, and Chamberlain, along with others such as Paddy O’Rorke and the New York 140th, conducted a brilliant defense of a hill called Little Round Top on the second day to stop the Union forces from being flanked. Both these incidents had been overshadowed in other accounts of the battle, including Foote’s. Here the defence of Little Round Top is the centrepiece of the book, vividly described and for me the novel’s highlight. In emphasising the Little Round Top fight Shaara ensures that Chamberlain, one of the Civil War’s most outstanding figures, is properly remembered (though, perhaps unfairly, to the exclusion of some others who fought on Little Round Top that day).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The book advances the thesis that aside from fine Union leadership Confederate disaster at Gettysbury arose from an overwhelming hubris on the part of Lee who seemed incapable of believing, after so many victories up to that point, that defeat could any longer be a possibility for him. However while there is probably considerable truth to this thesis it is sustained in this novel by the sleight of ignoring Lee’s efforts, stopped by the Union cavalry including a young General Custer, to get behind the Union lines with Stuart’s cavalry in support of Pickett’s charge. Pickett’s charge was a desperate gamble, but maybe not quite the sacrificial affair portrayed here. Indeed Custer and the other cavalry who fought that day should perhaps stand alongside Chamberlain and Buford for the importance of their actions on the third day of the battle in ensuring Union victory.

Foote’s Civil War has been called an American Iliad, and it certainly must rank amongst the outstanding American literature, as well as history, of the twentieth century. In the Killer Angels the Homeric echoes are also poignantly present, most notably in the character of Longstreet, doomed like Cassandra to foresee in the minutest detail the coming disaster, but like her unable to make anyone believe him. The image of Longstreet weeping as he passes on the order for what he knows will be a slaughter of his troops on the last day of the battle is a powerful one.

Overall a fine novel that seeks to honour the courage of all, even those who fought for the vile cause of the Confederacy.

Moments of posturing and murder before the fall of Troy: Christopher Logue’s War Music: an account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad

Achiles and Hector

A exquisitely written and consistently gripping new version of parts of the Iliad, starting from Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon and ending with Achilles arming for battle against Hector.

In between these two points the book is brimming with arresting images and ideas: Hector compared to a desert burned Rommel; Apollo as “Lord of Light and Mice”, the Sun-god and the bringer of plague; The fate of Troy decided in an ill-tempered negotiation amongst the gods echoes contemporary discussions in corridors of power to visit slaughter on nations and cities half a world away; and, almost as an aside, with the consistent referencing to Zeus as “God” and Apollo “his son” Logue asserts significant Greek influences on the development of Christianity, at the same time making the contemporary resonances of the work all the more stark.

I am not familiar with other adaptations or translations of the Iliad so cannot make any useful comparisons, but I found Christopher Logue’s reworking of the Iliad an exceptional work of poetry – funny, chilling, horrific and thought-provoking by turns. A stunning piece of work.

A path to power paved with war crimes: Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon (1769 – 1799)

Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria

Summary: An engrossing and chilling piece of work that charts Bonaparte’s path to power paralleled by his precipitous moral decline and the growth of his egotism.

In the course of this fine biography that charts Bonaparte’s rise from Corsica to Consul of France, one particularly distressing anecdote stands out: Following Bonaparte’s capture of Jaffa in 1799 the French troops engaged in a murderous sacking of the town, during which the soldiers kidnapped a large number of women and girls. They were “taken to the French camp and raped. Bonaparte, hearing of this, ordered that all women were to be led into the hospital courtyard by midday on pain of a severe punishment… it was believed that they would be sent back to the ruins of the town where they would find refuge. However a company of chasseurs was assembled to execute them” (p418).

This is very much a political, rather than a military biography of Bonaparte: the reader gets little sense of his tactical genius. The author’s interest is rather focused upon the exercise of power and particularly how Bonaparte parlayed his reputation for military success, often self authored and shamelessly exaggerated, into political power. But while there is little discussion of the battles there is a close consideration of Bonaparte’s role as a general-in-chief, how he organised, or failed to organise his logistics, and his policies towards conquered peoples. The disorganisation of Bonaparte’s march on Cairo pre-figures his failures in his Russian campaign, and the brutality displayed to the Arab populations of Egypt and Syria anticipates the brutality of Europe’s 19th century “scramble for Africa”, and indeed 20th and 21st century Western atrocities in the Middle East.

In considering all of this the author is at pains to emphasise that in terms of ruthlessness Bonaparte was little different from the other commanders of the era, whether British, Austrian or Russian. Yet, while this is undoubtedly true as British policy in Ireland in 1798, for example, confirms, there is something frightening about a man who could make a cold-blooded choice to slaughter those defenceless Palestinian women at Jaffa. Whatever greatness Bonaparte may ultimately have achieved it is dimmed beyond measure when one contemplates it in relation to the terror of those poor women’s last moments.

Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa

An Irish Butch and Sundance? Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street: The finest novel ever written about the Troubles in the North of Ireland

All stories are love stories...

All stories are love stories…

I started reading Eureka Street one evening when I was working in Angola. I had no expectations of the book and began reading it really only because a friend had given it to me. I was hooked by the first page. In the end I had to take an afternoon off work to finish it I was so gripped. I think someone has described this book as “the Irish War and Peace… with better jokes than Tolstoy”.

I’ve not read War and Peace yet. Rather Eureka Street reminded me of some of the classic “buddy” movies, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with its shifts between high comedy and brutally realistic violence and its focus at core on the friendship between Chuckie and Jake. One is Protestant and the other Catholic, but this is incidental. There is no heavy handed nonsense about friendship across the barricades in the book. Such friendships are commonplace in Belfast as elsewhere. Rather the book is about ordinary young people trying to live ordinary lives in Belfast in the early 90s. Hence this involves drinking, chasing girls and trying to make a living.

The result is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read as it details Jake’s efforts to recover from a broken heart and Chuckie’s efforts to become rich. Of course this is Belfast during the Troubles so violence intrudes shockingly: modest dreams are no defence against buffoons with guns and bombs intent on putting the world to rights.

The book is a testimony to why Belfast is the greatest city in Ireland – blasted to bits for years by invaders and locals alike and still a home to great love, great humour, great decency and great tea!

A masterpiece!

Recovering a forgotten history and celebrating treason: Fintan O’Toole’s A Traitor’s Kiss


Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered today as one of the most brilliant dramatists of the 18th century. What Fintan O’Toole does with this book, while not ignoring Sheridan’s considerable literary achievements is show that there was more to the man than the playwright. In fact Sheridan was one of the most democratic politicians of his day, a political visionary in both Irish and British politics. His reputation as a artist, cemented, almost literally, by his burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, was privileged in order to obscure his much more dangerous treasonous (to Britain) and patriotic (to Ireland) political views lest they encourage others.

The book, beautifully written as is typical of O’Toole, has the pace of a political thriller set against the background of the French Revolution, the United Irish rebellion of 1798 and machinations of Westminster at the time. My one quibble with the book is that it passes over the events of the 1798 rebellion too quickly to give readers unfamiliar with that period a full sense of the trauma that it must have been for Sheridan and those who thought like him.

Nevertheless the book achieves the remarkable feat of showing the modern relevance of someone from 200 years ago who has been ignored for too long in favour of much more imperial figures.

Great stuff!

Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith (as Mrs Malaprop)in a production of Sheridan's The Rivals

Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith (as Mrs Malaprop)in a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals

Redemption, even for spurned lovers: Ben Hur

Chuck and Stephen

The terms “epic” and “spectacular” have been cheapened by overuse these past decades, but here is a movie that really deserves them. The story is well known, written by a former US Civil War general, Lew Wallace, while he was governor of New Mexico and otherwise preoccupied with the shennigans of Billy the Kid: Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish nobleman, is unjustly sentenced to the galleys by his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), now a high Roman official in Palestine. Years later he manages to escape and returns to Palestine to find his mother and sister, condemned to prison with him, and to exact revenge on Messala. In paralell with Judah’s travails a young Jewish rabbi from Nazareth starts to preach a message of peace and justice.

galleysThe movie is rightly celebrated for two of its great set pieces – a sea battle, and even more spectacular, a chariot race. Legends abound around the race; allegedly the director William Wyler, insisted that Heston drive the chariot through the extended, hair-raising sequence: “You just stay in the chariot, Chuck. I’ll make sure you win the race!”

The more intimate scenes between the characters also resonate. Wyler and Boyd agreed that Messala’s motivation for turning on Judah was that on Messala’s return to Jerusalem Judah, his former lover, spurns a contination of their relationship. This is how Boyd plays the scene. Both Boyd and Wyler agreed however that the deeply conservative Heston would not be impressed with this reading and so didn’t deign to tell him. As a result Heston’s performance is solid mahogany in all his scenes with Boyd – accentuating, one can see, Messala’s hurt and frustration.

Its an amazing piece of work, all the more so for being achieved without the sort of computer generated imagery that is now commonplace in cinema. It will always remain a great way to spend an afternoon in front of the telly, but is even better if you get the chance to catch it in all its proper cinematic glory.Image

Times that try men’s souls: David McCullough’s 1776

Washington Crossing the Delaware by  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

This is an exceptionally gripping work of narrative history. Written as a companion to McCullough’s John Adams this book focuses on Washington from his appointment as commander of the Continental Army to his crossing of the Delaware at Christmas 1776 to mount a surprise attack on the British forces that had routed him from New York. What makes that story so remarkable is its consideration of the leadership of Washington, most particularly how he turned around his fortunes, and those of the American Revolution, from their nadir following his poor generalship in New York which led many of his closest lieutenants to lose confidence in him.

McCullough conveys in his narrative the extraordinary steeliness of Washington when faced with this crisis and which was core to his historical greatness. President Obama in his inaugural address cited Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in mid-winter as an example of the sort of courage in the face of adversity that was necessary to deal with America’s current travails, and this story can be inspirational to non-Americans (such as myself) or anyone faced with personal or professional reversals.

This is a compelling work, beautifully written, deeply exciting and a great introduction to this period of American history.